Evaluating the impact of nursery attendance on children’s outcomes

This project investigated the impact of nursery education on children's cognitive and social development.


This research project focused on the expansion in nursery education since 1998, which led to free part-time nursery education for three and four-year-olds and a large increase in the number of nursery places.

In January 2018 the project was launched with a report (PDF) and event at the Nuffield Foundation on 11 January 2018. 


  • Free part-time nursery places for three-year-olds enabled some children to do better in assessments at the end of Reception, but overall educational benefits are small and do not last.
  • Between 1999 and 2007, the proportion of three-year-olds in England benefitting from a free nursery place rose from 37 per cent to 88 per cent. However, for every four children given a free place, only one additional child began to use early education. For the other three children, the policy gave parents a discount on the early education that they would have paid for in any case.
  • While there was modest evidence that the policy had more impact on the poorest, most disadvantaged children, the policy did not close the gap in attainment between those from richer and poorer families in the longer term.
  • A weak relationship between the characteristics of PVI nurseries and children's outcomes was found. Children taught by a highly qualified staff member and those who attended settings rated as Outstanding by Ofsted scored slightly higher on the Foundation Stage Profile. However, the research found there were substantial unexplained differences in outcomes between nurseries.
  • Eligibility for an additional term of free part-time early education results in a very small increase in outcomes at age five. There is some evidence that an extra term of entitlement is more beneficial for children who attend settings highly rated by Ofsted, but effects are still small.